What I learned this summer… or “the State of the European Dis-Union”

Policy op-ed by Claire Roumet

Yesterday, 15 September, the President of the European Commission was returning to deliver the now traditional State of the Union. This year’s address highlighted the grandeur of Europe, as it aims to reach climate neutrality by 2050 and thus become a world leader at COP26, which will take place at the start of November in Glasgow.

The Commission will be asking MEPs to support its ambitious proposals outlined in the “Fit for 55” package (TN: an economy that will have cut its emissions by 55% by 2030). It will also be asking ministers to align the huge national recovery plans funded by the exceptional European budget put in place to tackle the health crisis. After two years in office, you might think that the Commission has a track record to be proud of. However, although the economy does seem to be getting through this rough patch and no one is discussing the climate emergency any more, I am not sure that Europe is in good shape. Summer 2021 saw torrential rain, forest fires and the pressure of migrant flows, which did not strengthen the European project.

In a deeper sense, European cohesion itself appears to be growing more distant

This summer, I was struck by the differing views and reactions to the health crisis as I travelled across three countries. Having stayed in Belgium for many months, I was amazed to see the “anti-health pass” protests in French towns and, by contrast, the total freedom to eat in restaurants and walk around the streets of Madrid without a mask.

One virus, one pandemic, but a different political context: you either get a (distressed, angry) popular radical response or one that’s relatively agreeable and calm. How are we going to build “Europe” and establish common sense when there are such profound internal national divisions and policies with such conflicting approaches?

The media coverage on the response to the crisis has been poor. Why is no one taking a serious look at the emergency policies put in place and the extent to which these different policies impact social cohesion, inequality and insecurity?

Whether it is for this crisis, the next ones, for the future of Europe or for the future of the planet (or rather humanity), I do not see how we are going to be able to make progress without investing heavily in collective discussions with real scientific evidence, real mediation methods and by really listening to others.

Building a society is a learning process that must be cultivated

And although I was struck by the speed with which deep divisions were made, I truly hope that we will have the presence of mind to discuss it and make decisions about our shared future with respect and responsibility.

What I also learned is that dramatic changes in opinion can happen quickly and that time is far from being intangible during social transformation.  We are always asked to work on “accepting” the transition, as though it should be treated with caution and is the major barrier to the transformation we need. But opinions are made and unmade, and education policies, the vitality of democracy, the role of research in debate and cultural action play a key part in this.

What I learned is actually a source of hope, as we clearly need powerful movements to realign our economies [i], if we agree to cool the debate, by having serious, substantiated and open conversations. That was partly shown by the Citizens Convention for Climate in France, but elsewhere too. We must make shared assessments of what our territories are offering as alternatives and, on this basis, think collectively and concretely about policies to put in place. And this decision should not be made on behalf of citizens!

[i] As shown in the future IPCC report, which is to be published next February but was partially leaked during the summer.